Turkish gov’t negotiating return to parliamentary system, says jailed politician Demirtaş

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is using discussions on a new constitution for the country to seek a way to walk back the executive presidential system, imprisoned Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş said in an interview Gazete Karınca published on Thursday.

“The government needs a new and positive narrative,” Demirtaş told journalist Nedim Türfent, a Kurdish journalist who has been imprisoned for five years over his coverage of conflict news in Turkey’s southeast and still in the jail while conducting this interview over letters.

“And now that it is certain that they won’t be able to win another election under the current system,” Demirtaş continued, “they want to keep the door open for a return to the parliamentary system and an unofficial negotiation with the opposition.”

The AKP appears to have sent messengers to opposition parties, Demirtaş said, excluding the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) that he led before he was arrested. “As far as I know, they haven’t received a positive response to date.”

The government knows it doesn’t have the seats required for a new constitution, and wishes to get over the bind it is in by keeping the discussions for one on the agenda, the veteran politician said.

The targeting of Demirtaş’s party is not separate from the rest of the government’s agenda, he told Türfent. “Despite arrests, government appointed replacements to elected mayors, and an attempt to shut the party down, HDP and its base are putting forth the most resistance,” he said.

The Constitutional Court recently turned downed an indictment to close the HDP, citing an insufficiently built and evidenced case against the second largest opposition bloc in the country. The HDP will still face trial, after prosecutors revise the indictment that accuses the party of being a centre of focus for terrorist activity.

AKP has been losing votes, and vote shares for the ruling coalition that also includes the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) may have dropped to 46 percent, according to an average of 16 pollsters that news website Diken calculated in early March. However, the votes are not going to the opposition. Undecided voters are the fastest  growing segment in Turkish society.

For the opposition to win elections against the ruling Nation Alliance, parties must refrain from a discourse of winning on their own, and focus on coalition building, Demirtaş said. “Society is drifting away from the government because they complain about the one-man, one-party state,” he said. “The day the opposition comes together, the seemingly undecided voters will hone in on whoever they see close to themselves.”

Demirtaş repeated a call for a joint democratic baseline program for the opposition. The HDP has also been calling for a pro-democracy alliance among the opposition.

The popular Kurdish politician has remained in prison since Nov. 2016, and remains in a two-person cell at a high security prison in the westernmost Edirne province despite rulings by Turkey’s Constitutional Court (AYM) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for his immediate release.

Demirtaş said it felt like Abdullah Zeydan, former HDP deputy who was arrested alongside him, was the only other person in the Edirne Prison, because the pair were never allowed to see any other inmates, in violation of Turkey’s laws on incarceration.

The two politicians haven’t been able to have their families or lawyers visit them in prison for more than a year due to coronavirus restrictions, and they have been allowed physical exercise for only an hour per month, Demirtaş recounted.

The government “doesn’t care that the AYM or ECHR rules that there are grave rights violations for the time being”, Demirtaş said. “Because they think they will lose their power and face much harsher consequences if they can’t keep us in prison, they must think causing such violations is a lighter price to pay.”

Demirtaş said his trial was politically motivated, a sentiment echoed in the ECHR ruling.

“Justice won’t come in such political cases before the political balance changes, we know this well.” Demirtaş said. “We also know that European Union member states consider human rights issues to be negotiation fodder in inter-state relations.”